Plasma cutters are an essential tool in many businesses, from car repair shops to manufacturing facilities. They offer precision cutting on a variety of materials and allow faster cut times. Use this guide to gain a deeper understanding of plasma cutters, including their definition and parts, how they work, considerations when choosing one, and proper safety measures.
A plasma cutter is an industrial tool that uses a high-velocity stream of ionized gas (plasma) to cut through conductive metals like steel, aluminum, brass, or copper. The plasma is created by passing compressed air or inert gases like nitrogen through an electric arc, which superheats the gas into the fourth state of matter.
Plasma cutters make clean, fast cuts through metal. They are commonly used in fabrication shops, machine shops, auto repair, construction, maintenance, and salvage.
The plasma-cutting process was discovered by Robert Gage in 1957 while experimenting with a plasma welder. He found that increasing the velocity of the plasma arc could blow molten metal away, cutting instead of welding.
The first plasma cutters were large and unwieldy, but technological advances made the equipment more compact. Modern handheld plasma cutters generate cutting power from built-in air compressors, bringing greater versatility and precision to metalworking.
A plasma cutter consists of a power supply, an air compressor, power and gas hoses, a handheld torch, and consumables like the electrode and nozzle. The power supply converts and regulates electricity to create the arc.
The compressed air is blown through the nozzle to shape and propel the plasma stream while cooling the torch. The consumables direct and constrict the arc into a focused, high-energy jet capable of slicing through metal.
Plasma cutters work by passing an electric current between a negatively charged electrode (cathode) and a positively charged cutting tip (anode). Compressed air flowing between them is superheated into plasma, reaching temperatures around 25,000°F.
This ionized gas melts the workpiece while the pressurized air stream blows away the molten metal, resulting in a narrow kerf cut. An arc voltage above 200V DC is optimal for plasma cutting capacity. The plasma arc is generated by a high-voltage spark from the electrode that ionizes the passing air. Maintaining the arc requires over 200 amps of electrical current at around 100–300 volts DC, depending on thickness.
More power allows deeper penetration and faster cuts, but it also requires heavier-duty equipment. The amperage, torch design, and compressed air pressure all determine the cutting capacity.
There are several types of plasma cutters to choose from depending on your needs. The most common types include:
- Manual – These are handheld plasma cutters that are easy to maneuver for cutting metal. They typically have lower amperages and are suitable for lighter-duty cutting.
- Mechanized – These plasma cutters are designed to be mounted on CNC cutting machines. They allow automated precision cutting and are commonly used in industrial settings.
- High-Definition – HD plasma cutters use digital technology to provide extremely fine and accurate cuts. They are more expensive but produce the cleanest cuts.
- Inverter – Inverter plasma cutters are lighter, more portable, and more energy efficient. The inverter technology allows them to use less power while providing high amperages.
High-speed plasma cutters are commonly used for cutting steel and other conductive metals in the fabrication, automotive, aerospace, and construction industries. Compared to other metal cutting methods like oxyfuel and laser, plasma cutters are faster, more precise, and involve less warping.
Common industrial applications include:
- Cutting steel for structural fabrication and piping
- Shearing steel plates and pipes
- Cutting metal in CNC machining and robotic cutting
- Extracting metal parts from plates or other stock material
- Cutting metal tubes, tanks, and cylinders
Plasma cutters allow clean cuts through metal for projects, repairs, and artistic work. While less powerful than industrial models, these plasma cutters provide ample cutting capacity for home garages or small shops.
Common personal plasma cutter uses include:
- Cutting steel, stainless steel, and aluminum for auto repairs and projects
- Artistic metal cutting for sculptures, signs, and furniture
- Household repairs and modifications involving metal cutting
- Extracting/salvaging metal parts from vehicles, appliances, etc.
- Cutting piping and tubing for gas lines, handrails, and roll cages
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With many plasma cutter models and specifications available, it’s crucial to select the right plasma cutter for your needs based on:
The cutting capacity of a plasma cutter is determined by its amperage, which typically ranges from 20 amps to 200 amps. Consider what metal thicknesses you need to cut. More amps allow deeper cuts through thicker metal.
Higher amperages require more power input, so be sure to also consider electrical supply requirements. Industrial plasma cutters may require 220–480V 3-phase power, while smaller models run on standard 110/120V household current.
Along with power requirements, understanding the cutting speed is essential. The cutting speed is how fast the plasma cutter can travel along a line while cutting. Speeds for handheld cutters range from 10 inches per minute (IPM) to over 100+ IPM. Faster cutting speeds allow you to complete projects quickly.
The cut quality may decline at maximum cutting speeds. Consider both speed and cut precision for your purposes.
Finally, plasma cutters use consumable parts like swirl rings, electrodes, nozzles, and more that degrade during cutting and must be replaced periodically. Choose a plasma cutter that has readily available and affordable consumables.
With backup consumables, you can quickly get back up and running when parts wear out after extended use.
Taking proper safety precautions and following best practices mitigates risks when operating a plasma cutting system. This starts with the following:
When operating a plasma cutter, it is crucial to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Some essential PPE items include:
- Safety Glasses – ANSI-approved safety glasses with side shields or a face shield are essential to protect your eyes from sparks and infrared/ultraviolet rays emitted during cutting. This prevents eye injuries or blindness.
- Leather Gloves – Sturdy welder’s gloves made from fire-resistant leather offer hand protection from heat, sparks, and sharp metal edges. Look for gloves with gauntlet cuffs extending past the wrists.
- Flame-Retardant Clothing – Wear flame-resistant clothes without pockets or cuffs that could catch sparks. Leather aprons, jackets, and sleeves provide additional protection. Avoid synthetics that can melt.
- Steel Toe Boots – Steel toe boots protect your feet from falling metal pieces and prevent electrical shock by insulating you. Make sure your boots fully cover your feet and aren’t worn or cracked.
- Welding Helmet – Use a welding helmet with a #5 or higher filtered lens to protect your face and neck from intense ultraviolet and infrared rays. Adjust settings per amperage.
- Respirator – An NIOSH-approved respirator protects the lungs from inhaling toxic fumes released when cutting coated metals. Opt for a half-mask or full-face fitted respirator.
Before using any plasma cutter, take the following steps:
- Read the Manual – Carefully read the manufacturer’s instructions to understand proper procedures and hazards.
- Inspect Equipment – Check all components like the torch, cables, and power supply for damage before use. Replace defective parts immediately.
- Ventilate the Area – Make sure the cutting area is adequately ventilated to remove smoke and fumes. Consider local exhaust ventilation.
- Secure the Workpiece – Properly secure the metal workpiece to prevent movement and electrical contact during cutting.
- Check the Air Pressure – Verify required air pressure levels in the air supply for optimal plasma arc constriction and cut quality.
- Limit Distractions – Avoid distractions, stay alert, and focus entirely on the cutting process for safety.
- Power Off When Not in Use – Always turn the plasma cutter power supply off when not actively cutting to prevent accidental startup.
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